Libyan soldiers who arrived in Derna hours after the city was devastated by flooding were met with the most gruesome sight – hundreds of bodies floating in engulfed streets and entire neighbourhoods flattened.
But they also spotted looters looking for cash and gold.
“I was one of the first soldiers deployed from Tripoli to Derna after we were told to make our way to the city after hearing initial reports of the total devastation that had befallen the city,” a Libyan National Army (LNA) troop who identified himself as Saif told The National.
“What we saw was total chaos and panic in the initial hours on Monday morning once the storm had calmed down.
"There were hundreds of bodies just floating in the water and inside their homes. But I also saw looters lurking inside people’s homes trying to steal the dead’s belongings."
The devastation was caused by flash floods after two dams burst above the coastal city during heavy rainfall from Storm Daniel, unleashing a torrent of water that swept away entire neighbourhoods and killed almost 4,000 people.
In the chaotic aftermath of the floods, the LNA arrested up to 20 people for looting and detained them in Derna’s central prison, a soldier who wished to remain anonymous said.
Residents and NGO workers confirmed they witnessed the LNA making arrests. Some residents said soldiers fired shots at suspected looters, but The National was unable to verify whether anyone was hit or killed.
“Derna is a widely middle-class city but the people are so tightly knit that everyone knows where those who held cash and gold lived,” Naeem Al Sheikh, a volunteer member of the search, rescue and recovery team embedded with the LNA, told The National.
"Most of the rich lived close to the banks of the Derna Valley. The looters knew that those who lived in villas and two-floor houses stood no chance of survival.
“We found the looters on that initial first day when we saw them entering people’s houses.
"They initially said they were there help in the rescue operations but we saw them leaving with gold and cash," he added.
"Who does that in the middle of a disaster? That’s how we knew they had bad intentions.
Saif, the LNA soldier, added: “These are people’s livelihoods and belongings.
"Even if no one ever reclaims them because those who owned the cash and gold are now long gone and have passed, it is still not right. In no world should this ever be accepted,” he said.
According to Mr Al Sheikh, once volunteers had spent several days recovering as many bodies as possible from the rubble, they gathered any valuables such as cash and gold and handed them over to the army.
“We made sure to document everything that was collected by matching the valuables with the addresses of the apartments or houses where we found them," he said. "If we couldn’t pinpoint them, we tried to match them by finding official government documents like passports or their national IDs and handed them over."
Anger over response as residents return home
Libyan authorities have come under intense pressure over their handling of the disaster as the death toll continues to rise and thousands remain missing.
The country has been ruled by two rival administrations since civil war broke out following the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Derna and the rest of eastern Libya is under the control of the House of Representatives, led by Aguilah Saleh and backed by the LNA.
Analysts say local authorities neglected the maintenance of vital infrastructure, including the two dams that burst and unleashed a deadly torrent that swept through the city of 100,000 people.
The response to the flooding has also been criticised for lacking co-ordination, despite international relief efforts.
Tens of thousands of residents have been left homeless and are lacking clean water, food and basic supplies amid a growing risk of cholera, diarrhoea, dehydration and malnutrition, UN agencies have warned.
A few residents began to return to their homes in the riverside neighbourhoods that were heavily destroyed on Tuesday, carrying with them suitcases to salvage any of their belongings they could find.
Fouad bin Zabeel, his wife and three daughters were among those who came to collect documents, clothes and official papers from his apartment near the corniche.
“Thanks to Allah we all survived by the storm,” Mr bin Zabeel told The National. "This storm was a monster, it was not any normal natural disaster. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you we began to say our final prayers because we were convinced we were going through the final judgment day."
Mr bin Zabeel said his family survived the storm because they were living on a higher storey in a recently built apartment building.
For him, the ultimate cost of the disaster is the thousands of people who were less fortunate.
“I’ve heard some reports of looting but thankfully it was not widespread and the authorities were able to control those who wanted to take advantage of the devastation,” he said. "At the end of the day, these are all material things that can be replaced but the thousands of souls of those we lost can never be."